Moorpark College Music celebrates life and legacy of former director Michael Gangemi

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Saxophonists play in the Performing Arts Center on May 5. 2022 in Moorpark, CA. Photo credit: Claire Boeck

The Moorpark College Music Department celebrated the life of Michael Gangemi with a student-led jazz performance on May 5 in the Performing Arts Center.

Known to many as simply “G,” Gangemi was a beacon of light in the Southern California band world. For over 30 years he was a constant, driving force in many young musicians’ lives, working at many local schools including Moorpark High School and Moorpark College.

Gangemi passed away on June 20, 2021, from liver and kidney complications. But his memory will live on in the hearts of all who knew him, and it certainly lived on the stage of the Performing Arts Center with the help of Brendan McMullin, director of the Moorpark College jazz band.

“He’s had such an amazing impact on this community, including members of our band,” McMullin said. “This is the least we can do to pay homage to him and show our love.”

The performance was filled with various jazz tunes from the repertoire of The Lane 29 Orchestra — Gangemi’s own jazz big band that he started in 1991. Moorpark College students provided the music, while previous vocalists from Lane 29’s history also attended to pay their respects and provide their voice.

Heather Wood traveled all the way from Chicago to participate. She sang in Lane 29 when she was only 16 years old, and credits Gangemi with giving her the motivation to pursue a professional singing career.

Heather Wood sings during the "All About Jazz" performance in the Performing Arts Center on May 5. 2022 in Moorpark, CA.
Heather Wood sings during the "All About Jazz" performance in the Performing Arts Center on May 5. 2022 in Moorpark, CA. Photo credit: Claire Boeck

“Mike is here tonight, and he is cracking his jokes. You know that he is, he was so witty,” Wood said. “But I know that he’s here with a full heart.”

Allison Adamson, a former student from Westlake High in 2016, was also in attendance and re-lived some of the songs she herself played under Gangemi’s instruction.

“I had been playing guitar for less than a year when I became a student of his, and he was my first real jazz director,” Adamson reminisced. “He was amazing. He really inspired me to keep playing because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to.”

Gangemi’s mother and sister were planning to be there, too. But due to last-minute complications, they were unable to make the journey from Colorado to California. Gangemi’s mother, Gina Zumbluskas, wrote a brief note that was read out loud at the performance to show her support, even while she was thousands of miles away.

“We are so honored that here we are, one year after my son’s death, and these amazing young musicians are honoring his legacy,” Zumbluskas wrote. “We are truly brokenhearted that we can’t be there with all of you to enjoy this performance in person.”

Ending the night on an upbeat note, the band performed a special song specifically commissioned for Gangemi nearly 20 years ago. It chronicled Gangemi’s peculiar ability that earned him the nickname “The Freeway Man.”

Dylan White, another Lane 29 “alumnus,” introduced the song. He sang the vocals when “The Freeway Man” first debuted all those years ago.

“Mike had this weird ability to navigate the Southern California freeway system by memory. I don’t know how or even why he could do it,” White said with a chuckle. “But Mike knew any possible route to get from one point to another, and any alternate route should it become necessary. And if you live in Southern California, you know it often does.”

The song was a hit, full of witty jokes that had ‘Gangemi’ written all over them and the Performing Arts Center erupted with laughter and applause. To celebrate Gangemi’s legacy, it only seemed fitting to make everyone chuckle.

For more information on upcoming events in the Performing Arts Center, click here.